Virgen de la Asunción Safe Home: A Tragedy that Doesn’t Penetrate

Translated by Marvin Najarro
Since the day of the fire at the Virgen de la Asunción Safe Home, on March 8, a lot of water has ran under the bridge, and with it also a great deal of disinformation, media outlets that seek to capture the reader’s attention with the most chilling headlines, and sensationalist notes, depict the lives and dignity of the victims and their families as worthless. Forget ethics and humanism. “They were there because they were involved in crime,” so say some of them, while another emphasizes that: “this was a portrait of dysfunctional families,” referring to the parents who upon learning about the fire, arrived as they could at the children house. Articles, reports, and detailed accounts from the point of view of class, and affluence.

The Safe Home (Hogar Seguro) is not a correctional facility for minors; it is a children shelter run by the government of Guatemala, which supposedly provides protection to children and adolescents who have suffered physical, emotional and sexual violence, abandonment, and orphanhood that puts them in constant social risk. It is located in San José Pinula, on the outskirts of the Guatemalan capital. Many of the children who have been victims of sexual and labor exploitation, and irregular adoptions are housed there: a torture center authorized by the state.
Since 2013, complaints have been lodged before the prosecutor’s office and the Human Rights Office for the sexual abuse of girls at the hands of criminal gangs made up of the same employees and authorities of the Safe House; where they were victims of trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. But these denunciations didn’t attract the media attention, because they were pariahs, as simple as that. Who would be interested in the life of these outcasts, if Guatemala asks for the death penalty for them? It wants to exterminate them as happened to indigenous peoples during the genocide. That explains to a large extent the consequences of this tragedy that could be avoided.
One of the first articles that reactivated the allegations was one published on October 24, 2016, by the journalist Carolina Vásquez Araya, under the title, “The girls wore denim pants and gray sweatshirts,” the columnist comments as follows: “If one cast a look at the state institutions and their reduced management skills, one understand better why the children of this Safe House sleep crowded on the ground, are poorly feed, and some escape from that degrading situation. But that doesn’t explain the sudden disappearance of 31 girls between September 28 and 29, this in addition to the 99 registered until that moment.” She refers to an article published by La Hora newspaper, which has closely followed the complaints of the girls since 2013.
Throughout the week some media reported the disappearance of 31 girls, it was not known if they had fled or had been kidnapped. In the following days it was learned that they had fled, they were taken back to the Safe Home. It came out in the open that they suffered sexual abuse and all kinds of indignities imaginable, and that is why they fled, yet there were no serious consequences, neither the authorities nor the Social Welfare Office or society did something for these girls. Society denigrated them again, re-victimizing them due to their origin and social status. The authorities ignored them, they were outcasts…
The months went by and the situation in the children home remained the same. The night before the fire, 60 children tried to escape through the nearby ravines and forests, but only 19 succeeded, the rest were caught by the police and returned to the shelter and locked up. On the morning of March 8 the girls seeking the attention of the authorities set the mattresses on fire, but the authorities and the workers ignored it; never opened the doors. In a matter of minutes the fire devoured the girls inside. As a result 19 die in the place and more than 30 were reported with serious injuries, in the course of the days 18 more have died in health public institutions. It was learned, as a result of investigations, that the shelter staff padlocked the doors and windows on the outside, why did they do that, if 56 teenagers crammed inside were burning?
Among the survivors there are 9 pregnant girls, they didn’t arrive pregnant at the Safe Home, who abused them? Are there pregnant girls among the deceased?
If allegations of sexual, physical and emotional abuse have already been made, why did not an exhaustive investigation take place and the shelter was ordered closed? Why did society fail to react to such atrocities?
It is a state crime; it is a crime of Guatemalan society that whitewashes the ineffectiveness of a government, and of a corrupt and collapsed system. And the culprits will go unpunished because Guatemala is like this: a mediocre, classist, racist, and gutless society.
It is pointed out, and emphasized, by statements of the Guatemalan government, and media accounts that lack ethics and humanity, that these children were criminals, “they were there because they were troublemakers” or, “their parents placed them there for rebellious behavior.” Trying by all means to discredit the girls and their families and downplay the tragedy. And if they were criminals then they deserved to die that way, killed by the state? Because that’s what they mean. Who made them criminals? The absolute responsibility lies upon a failed, rotten and corrupt state. It is the fault of an unaccountable and violent system.
The government official version is that the girls mutinied (be careful with this word, is a delicate one especially in a case as serious as this), because they did not like the food they were given, it does not accept that, in the children house the minors were physically, emotionally and sexually abused. Which is not surprising coming from a government like the one in Guatemala. An irresponsible stance by the authorities and total ineptitude and indolence on the part of Jimmy Morales, who should be immediately removed from office.
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Ilka Oliva Corado @ilkaolivacorado

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